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Saturday, August 23, 2014

“She’ll be the making of him”: Nature, Nurture and Class in Emma

I love — absolutely LOVE — when we really dig into a topic during Austen in August. Yes, I was that kid who took all of the lit classes she could so she could discuss things, and would get really irritated when no one in the class seemed to want to do the same. (And yes, I have filled the entire class period with just me and the teacher talking, and it didn't bother me the least. Y'all don't want to talk? OKAY, I WILL. ;P )
Some of my favorite posts on AIA have been the ones with a more scholarly bent (though I like the silly ones a great deal, too... Oh, who am I kidding, I love them all!); I love the insights all of you provide, from the guest posts themselves to the discussions that take place in the comments. I love seeing the passion and the perspective that everyone brings. Basically, I just love it all.

That's why I'm very pleased to introduce the first of 2 pieces focusing on class in Austen, from Lindsay Zaborowski. Give it a read, and then let us know your thoughts in the comments. Chat, debate, tawk amongst yaselves — I can't wait to see what you all have to say!

“She’ll be the making of him”: Nature, Nurture and Class in Emma
by Lindsay Zaborowski

As in Jane Austen’s other novels, Emma adds another dimension to the debate about changes in class by introducing the concept of nature versus nurture into class-related discussions. In Emma, the characters once again debate the characteristics of those around them in terms of a class lens, and the idea that nature predominates over nurture is exemplified.

In the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to Emma Woodhouse, who can be best described as rich, spoiled and though seemingly well-meaning, is used to being liked and to getting her own way. She befriends Harriet Smith, a girl from the local boarding school with an unknown parentage. This is the first instance in which the reader sees Emma and her neighbor Mr. Knightley seriously disagree; Emma is persuaded that purely because of Harriet’s character she much be a “gentleman’s daughter” (45). Emma exhibits a predilection for judging people purely based on class. In her view, the class people are born into has the ultimate effect on what kind of character they will grow to have. Therefore since Harriet is a sweet-natured girl she must be a gentleman’s daughter, and because William Cox is lower middle class he must be vulgar.

Her marked discrimination of people based on class is most obvious with Robert Martin, who she continues to snub despite Mr. Knightley’s insistence that “Robert Martin’s manners have sense, sincerity, and good humor; and his mind more true gentility than Harriet Smith could ever understand” (48). Emma tells Harriet that she cannot marry Robert Martin because if she does Emma will never be able to visit her (39). Part of Emma’s journey throughout the novel is to learn to base her judgment of people on their actual character, instead of what could be called class-based stereotypes.

Two main characters within the novel help Emma to learn the lesson of individual character judgments. In opposition to the other novels, where characters who teach this lesson are members of the middle class, the two main characters who form Emma’s opinions are her class peers. The first is Mr. Knightley. Despite his status as neighborhood landowner, he is friendly with a range of people from all different socio-economic backgrounds. He is fairly effective at reading people, seeing that a man like Robert Martin far outweighs a man such as Frank Churchill in terms of his own personal values, regardless of class. Episodes such as the trip to London for a haircut and the letter game at the Cole’s party convince Mr. Knightley that Frank Churchill, despite all the privileges of having a very good upbringing in terms of class, is not the kind of person with whom he would like to have an acquaintance.

Mr. Knightley also scolds Emma because she will not show the compassion she should to a poor spinster like their old friend Miss Bates, who though sometimes annoying is ultimately a kind and well-meaning woman (273). Mr. Knightley is really only able to shape Emma because he is an “old friend” and of the same class standing, which allows him to attempt to correct the faults he sees in her which few other people would recognize or seek to uncover (7).

Interestingly, the other example for accepting people based on intrinsic value is Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. The narrator tells us that “His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different than himself” (13). Though this is an extremely self-centered view of the world, it does have some benefit within the community because it seems that Mr. Woodhouse holds this same philosophy about most concerns, not just food. He is the wealthiest member of the neighborhood, but he holds none of the class snobbery as is exhibited in characters such as the unseen Mrs. Churchill (and, at times, Emma). He is equally as friendly with Miss Bates and the boarding school owner Mrs. Goddard as he is with the wealthier Knightleys and Westons. He enjoys having influence among those around him, so in some ways he, like Emma, would appreciate lower class people because they have the most to gain and greatest desire to emulate their upper class patrons. Unlike Emma, however, he recognizes the good he can do for everyone no matter their station and is not afraid to make connections with those socially beneath him.
The way in which Emma is able to learn the lesson of how to appropriately judge people comes with expansion of her social circle. Upon the marriage of Mr. Elton and the arrival of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Emma is exposed to a wider variety of people from a wider scope of social classes. When Mrs. Elton arrives in town, Emma immediately sees that though she may come from a similar social and economic class to Emma, she is far more vulgar than anyone in Highbury, even the infamous Coxes.

In juxtaposition, Jane Fairfax is from a lower class background (though she is taken in by an upper class family) and is destined to be a governess, and yet she ultimately comes to display a remarkable among of elegance, sensibility, and accomplishments. The one criticism that may be made of Jane is her acceptance of the secret engagement to Frank Churchill, who is at times deceitful, cruel, or both. Mr. Knightley laments her situation, though exhibit the belief that her good nature can change his: “[he will soon] have the advantage of being constantly with her, [and] I am very ready to believe his character will improve, and acquire from hers the steadiness and delicacy of principle that it wants” (326). Frank Churchill really loves Jane Fairfax, and Mr. Knightley believes that he does not have a permanently bad nature but van change is he chooses to; this, nature and character are fluid and even if one has initially make bad choices, redemption is possible.

Just as Robert Martin is a ‘simple’ farmer and yet has an excellent character, men and women such as Mrs. Elton and Frank Churchill too can (or could have chosen to) form themselves to be worthier people. These ideas of redemption are key throughout Emma; without forgiveness and love the different relationships between Emma and Mr. Knightley, Jane and Frank Churchill, and Emma and the Bates could have never survived.

Work Cited:
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

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  1. Well put! One of the most fun aspects of Austen's writing, I think, is the acknowledgement of England's class system, and the jibes that the wealthy are not necessarily better/the poor not necessarily worse. It's interesting from a psychological standpoint, though, how Emma formed her classist views, given that the two people with the most influence on her life were not elitist. Where did she pick up that naive view that the upper classes were more gentile and the lower more vulgar? I wonder...

  2. This was a clear dissection and I would definitely agree with it for the most part. Emma is a character that needs to grow and does grow by the conclusion of the story. While the very points made in this article do annoy me about Emma, I will do her the kindness of stating that I don't think she was as calculating in her ways and thoughts as this seems to imply. I give her credit for wanting the best for the few people she fixates on. Mr. Knightley even said something to that effect regarding her botched attempt to pair Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton when he said she chose better for 'him' than he did for himself.
    Emma is also not alone in her assumptions. I've read so many from this time where the upper classes are taught to believe that it falls on them to lead by example and education to the less fortunates in the lower classes- like the class you were born into is a result of your moral status or something. Yay for the Revolutions b/c I just know that I would have been born in the lower classes and thought to have the comparative morals and intellect. ;)


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